Thursday, March 19, 2009

In Hawaii, Innovation Makes an Old Food More Ono

Poke anyone?

Most of my mainland friends have never heard of poke, and when I tell them what it is, they give me bewildered looks. “It sounds Japanese,” they say. When I respond that it’s Hawaiian, they look at me askance and ask if I’m sure it’s not Japanese. “I’m sure,” I reply, knowing there’s little chance of introducing them to this signature Hawaiian dish unless they hop on a plane and fly here.

How is that sushi has made inroads into nearly every corner of the country, available in such unlikely places as rural Midwestern convenience stores, whereas poke, from a state that welcomes nearly eight million annual visitors, largely remains unknown? Poke marries with other ingredients in more varying, interesting, and successful ways than raw fish by itself ever could.

Poke, described by some as a “fish salad,” is popularly conceptualized as cubed fish mixed with Hawaiian salt, chili pepper, and limu (a crunchy, edible Hawaiian seaweed). Its origins can also be traced back centuries, and represents an important ingredient to native Hawaiian identity. In the words of Justin Tanioka, General Manager of Tanioka’s Seafood & Catering, “Poke is a continuation of the past, a continuation of a Hawaiian food tradition.” Many visitors to Hawaii compare it with sashimi (“raw fish” in Japanese), but I find the comparison off target. Poke, which can also be seared, cooked, or even made from meat and vegetables, is a completely different eating experience from sashimi.

An ingredients list for poke sometimes reads to me, a relative newcomer to Hawaii, like a field guide to the Islands. Here’s a quick rundown of some common Hawaiian words you may encounter when shopping for poke: ahi (yellowfin tuna), aku (skip jack tuna), a’u (marlin), ‘inamona (roasted, pulverized kukui nuts mixed with sea salt), limu kohu (a red, spicy seaweed), limu manauea (a red-green seaweed with a mild taste), ‘opihi (limpets), and pa’akai (sea salt used in traditional food preparation and for flavoring).

One of poke’s biggest enthusiasts is world-renowned chef Sam Choy. Choy has been instrumental in popularizing Island cuisine, and even hosts the Sam Choy Poke Contest, which attracts scores of entrants, hundreds of attendees, and publicity from all over the world. Despite his and others’ efforts, however, poke remains little known outside Hawaii.

Poke selection at Tamashiro Market

Oahu’s best-known poke seller is Tamashiro Market, which has become a local institution since moving into its current salmon-colored building (and hanging a giant, plastic red crab twenty feet above its entrance) in 1962. Located in Kalihi, a working-class, immigrant neighborhood once famed for its many fishponds, Tamashiro Market specializes in fresh fish. A counter inside offers more than thirty kinds of poke, while its owner, Guy Tamashiro, creates new ones all the time. One of his latest creations, the Ahi Seaweed Supreme, is a laboriously constructed bricolage of dehydrated limu, deep-fried wonton strips, nori (dried Japanese seaweed), and a sauce made from twenty different ingredients.

One of my all-time favorites here is Surf Clam Poke. For me, the slightly sweet sauce and three distinct crunches, from the sliced Maui onions, green and bell peppers, and firm, lightly cooked meat of the clams, make the dish. Their most surprising poke is a Tahitian-inspired dish called Oka Poke: Pacific blue marlin marinated in coconut milk, with chopped tomato, onions, and crunchy cucumber wafers.

Oka Poke

When I crave smoked, dried, or cured flavors, I head to Tanioka’s in Waipahu and jostle with multiethnic throngs of grannies and high school kids to place my order. My three favorite poke here are Pipikaula Poke (russety strips of Hawaiian salt-cured beef), Smoked Salmon Poke (fishy, oniony, and delicately smoky) and Dried Ahi Poke (luxuriously dark niblets of yellowfin tuna). These briny morsels are washed down perfectly with a tall cold one, or, as my mood sometimes dictates, chilled sake.

Pipikaula Poke

Just down the road from Tanioka’s, Poke Stop offers what could fairly be called Oahu’s most innovative poke. Owned and operated by Elmer Guzman, former executive chef at Sam Choy’s and author of The Shoreline Chef, Poke Stop expands on traditional poke recipes by applying gourmet concepts to it.

Poke selection at Tanioka's Seafood & Catering

“Poke must have certain elements,” Guzman explains. “The most basic version uses salt, kukui nuts, and ogo (limu manauea). That was all the ancients had available for their poke. Nowadays you can use anything – as long as it makes sense.” Guzman’s Blackened Ahi, Tofu, Ginger Scallion Shrimp, and Kapakahi were the most memorable poke dishes of a recent Poke Stop feast. The Kapakahi Poke won me over, though, with its sweet, marbly hunks of ahi and creamy, faintly bitter limpets.

Kapakahi Poke

There’s a richness to poke that lingers after eating. This comes from the fat of the fish as well as the marinade, which is typically made from sesame oil. When combined with Hawaiian sea salt, the mix can render poke quite savory. The other day, my wife and I tried ten kinds of poke at Tamashiro Market. With steamed rice and some okra that we boiled at home, our poke dinner was satisfyingly filling and cost less than eighteen dollars. What’s more, we had enough leftover for lunch the next day.

“Everything has to be consistent,” Justin Tanioka said when I asked if there’s a secret to making good poke. “Obviously, the quality and freshness of your ingredients is key. Different fish also have different flavors, and even the same kind of fish doesn’t always taste the same. So you have to be aware of what you’re using and how your ingredients can complement it.”

For a nutritious, filling snack, poke is a low-fat, high-protein option. Ahi and aku, the most popular fish used in poke, are great sources of Vitamin B12, Iron, Magnesium, Niacin, and Selenium, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A four-ounce serving of either tuna variety measures in at less than 200 calories. While poke tends to be salty, salt is what draws much of the flavor onto the fish.

Ginger Scallion Poke

Poke remains inexpensive despite its popularity and the innovations that have changed how people think of it. One reason for this is that poke traditionally uses “economy” cuts of fish, minus the sinew. Back when he was a boy, Guzman most often ate poke made from akule (big-eye scad) – “poor man’s poke,” he says, “that my father made at home.” Now, by filleting it, dicing it up with shoyu, sesame oil, and chili flakes, he’s made akule a big-seller. Guzman admits that his modern take on poke didn’t work at first. “But once people understood what I was doing,” he says, “using higher-end ingredients and innovating on old ideas, they really went for it.”

Eating poke is like nibbling on the ocean itself. That's another difference between poke and sashimi: poke brings the taste of the ocean more intensely onto your plate. And the taste, as Justin Tanioka explained, is hardly uniform. The contrasts between, say, ahi onion poke, blackened ahi poke, and dried ahi poke will make you think that you’re eating completely different fish.

“For me,” Guy Tamashiro says, “one of life’s great joys is eating. I don’t ever want to lose my sense of taste. I’ve been eating poke since I was a kid and don’t want to give it up now. I just couldn’t live like that.”

When I ask why people who have never had poke should give it a try, he sighs as if he knows about my food-challenged friends. “Any food is worth trying at least once,” he says. “And you should do it for yourself because, who knows, you may discover a favorite dish. New textures, new tastes, new combinations of different ingredients. You should never be afraid to try something new. That’s what life’s all about.”

And that’s what I discover all the time in Hawaii. With such a magnificent blend of cultures, one’s food choices here are more varied than just about anywhere else in the world. Newcomers to Hawaii should not view poke as a dangerous leap into the unknown. For those who arrive with an interest in Island culture, it offers an easy and exciting entrée into what feeds it.

Where to get poke in Oahu:

Tamashiro Market: You’ll find over thirty kinds of poke here along with everything you need to make your own. Excellent quality and very affordable. 802 N. King Street. (808) 841-8047.

Poke Stop: Like the name says, a great place to stop for some of Hawaii’s best poke. A little off the beaten track, but well within reach if you find yourself at Pearl Harbor or bargain-shopping at the Waikele Outlet Mall. 94-050 Farrington Highway, Waipahu Town Center. (808) 676-8100. (

Tanioka’s Seafood & Catering: Anyone in Hawaii will assure you that quantity does not take precedence over freshness and quality here. While a bit far from Honolulu, it’s just up the road from Poke Stop. 94-903 Farrington Highway, Waipahu. (808) 671-3779. (

House Without a Key (Halekalani Hotel): Although expensive, you can get a scrumptious Island Style Ahi Poke “Martini” ($18) served on a bed of shiso (perilla) leaves and garnished with lumi, sesame seeds, chopped green onions, and radish sprouts wrapped in pickled ginger. The oceanside seating makes for a perfect place to savor your poke as the sun sets and live Hawaiian music takes the stage beneath an ancient Kiawe tree. 2199 Kalia Road, Waikiki. (808) 923-2311. (

Island Style Ahi Poke "Martini" with taro chips

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  1. So interesting to learn about this Poke.

    Ok, Hawai will be on my list to visit. I've been to Honolulu twice actually but only for transit.

    Btw, we have poke sushi rest. at a 5 stars hotel here in Jakarta. Heard it a fushion sushi. Hmmm... could it be this kind of poke? *wondering*

  2. Get outta here with that top pic of the raw opihi and crab! It's like dangling the carrot in front of the donkey, or horse, or whatever... ;-)

    Suffice to say that whenever I go back home, poke is among the list of things to gorge on. Oddly enough, spam is not on that "gorge" list, although I will grab the first spam musubi that I lay my eyeballs on. How very fortunate that you live in close distance to Leonard's. Nothing beats the fried stuff! Those baked zeppole were good only a few hours after the oven, but at the end of the day I was wishing that they had been fried instead. Have a great weekend!

  3. MMMMMMM....Those dishes look really interestingly yummie :))!! I had never heard from Poke before,.... So, thanks for the lovely info!!
    I adore your writing style!

  4. Lovely written and always readable by your style and very informative. I never know about "Poke" before. Here I wondering learning new things. And all poke is very interesting. I like much Japanese fish style. And really want to try "Ginger Scallion Poke" hehehe...I know it not a fish but it's seafood.;)

  5. Thanks for sharing - the post was wonderful - interesting - and very informative. I cannot wait to try poke, and now thanks to your post I at least have an idea where to start.

  6. I've heard of poke before but I certainly did not know all this information! Thank you for sharing this!

  7. If we need to have another excuse to go to Hawaii, we will say it's to try poke. The ginger scallion dish looks oh so enticing. You're a bowl of info for us with each post.

  8. Great post - I really wish I had known all of this that one and only time I was in Hawaii! Guess I will be much better informed next time :)

  9. Man I have to get Oahu! I've only been to Kauai. Kauai was awesome, but food wise I did not see anything like this! I did have some delicious smoothies and pulled pork sandwiches but I totally missed out on the poke!

  10. You've done a tremendous job mining the depths of this dish. When I first tasted poke (salmon), I loved it but now I must admit that I thought that's all there was to it! I never realized the variety possible, not only with fish but also cooked vs raw and other proteins and vegetables. Being in Tamashiro Market would be like being the proverbial kid in a candy store!

    I often wonder what it takes for certain cuisines to gain a foothold in mainstream America? Is it simply adept marketing on behalf of those groups (as is apparently the case with Malaysian and Thai cuisines, which have received their respective governments' support to promote their food abroad)? Why is it that the food of one of the states' of the Union is still so unknown to most Americans? And why am I burdening your comments section with all of these questions? 8-)

    I would love to try any of the ones pictured here (although I would gravitate first to the oka poke - love that coconut milk!) or perhaps a 10-poke dining experience as you and your wife had. Many thanks for once again expanding my culinary horizons!

  11. Selba: It sounds like that 5-star hotel’s restaurant in Jakarta might actually offer poke. I guess it’s getting more international after all! The next time you come to Honolulu, make sure to spend a few days here. You’ll have no problem finding poke. Thanks for your comment!

    Rowena: Haha! Sorry about those photos. It must be hard being where you can’t get poke. Can you make it on your own in Italy? I’m not a big fan of Spam either, though I could see how it might seem appealing after not being around it for a long time. And I agree about the fried stuff. I’d camp out in Leonard’s parking lot if I could be sure that I’d get the morning’s first malasadas…and not be arrested. Have a great weekend yourself!

    Sophie: Thank you for your kind words, and I hope that poke makes its way to Belgium soon!

    Tan: I’m glad you enjoyed my post about poke. I like Japanese-style fish, too (and actually had sushi tonight!), but I could have eaten some “Ginger Scallion Poke” if it had been on the menu. Thanks!

    Oysterculture: I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I hope you’ll have the chance to give poke a try one of these days. It’s deeeee-licious!

    5 Star Foodie: I wonder if there is poke in Virginia…Perhaps in Washington, D.C., you can find some, especially if there are Hawaiian/Polynesian restaurants in the city. Thanks for your comment!

    Duo Dishes: A bowl of info with each post – Ha! I like that. Of course, food is an excellent reason for coming to Hawaii, and if my post gives you another reason for visiting, well, the poke’s on me when you get here!

    Daily Spud: That just means you’ll need to come back to Hawaii soon. And when you do…bring your appetite! Thanks for your comment!

    Gastroanthropologist: I haven’t been to Kauai yet, so I can’t say where to get poke there. Actually, I don’t remember seeing it on Maui either, though it was easy to find on the Big Island. I guess I just need to do other posts about poke on the other islands…In any case, I’m glad you got to enjoy some local pulled pork and smoothies on Kauai. You’ll just have to try poke on your next visit, I guess!

    Tangled Noodle: Thanks for your nice comments! You’re right about Tamashiro Market. It’s so much fun going there, and even after a dozen visits I still tend to wander around wide-eyed and with a silly grin on my face. And I wish I knew what it took for certain cuisines to gain a foothold in mainstream America. What I find on Vietnamese menus in the U.S. is always a little deflating. If only Vietnamese foodcarts and sidewalk vendors were as prevalent in the U.S. as all the crappy fast food joints on every corner of every town. Waaa! I think that a lot of it has to do with adept marketing, as you suggested, especially in the case of Hawaiian food. Fresh seafood is hard to get in parts of the mainland, I guess, but other dishes would be easy to recreate. Thanks for your comments, and keep the questions coming!

  12. I have never heard of poke before. Thank you for introducing it in your blog and sharing all this information. All the dishes in the pictures sure look appetizing. There are just so many different types of foods out there that I haven't tried or have a knowledge of and I feel that sometimes I could be missing out on so much not having access to them. I wish I had all the time and the money to do nothing else than travel and try all these interesting foods in every single part of the world for the rest of my life!

  13. Hi Sapuche,
    I’m so jealous right now, because you live in the coolest place. And all this seafood looks yummy.
    I went to a place for brunch today called ‘Lobster Bar’, that I wanted to check for a long time. It was ok, but the best part was a blueberry “lemonade” that had so much vodka I started seeing doubles.
    But now checking your post, made all that lobster look very boring.
    Lucky you. By the way, my eye is much better.

  14. Not a chance for making poke here because it just ain't the same without limu. Kills me to thing that a bag of fresh limu at the market is so darn cheap....really, I gotta get back sooner than later. Another thing I'm missing is raw crab poke. With a six-pack I am good to go!

  15. Never had the opportunity to try poke before. However, after seeing your pictures and reading the descriptions, I think I might have a poke craving. I don't think there's anyplace in Calgary where I would be able to get it, but I butcher tuna on a regular basis and would love to attempt making it with some of the trim... of course, I work at an Italian restaurant so that could make things interesting :)

  16. I love poke, poi, musubi, surfing, and macadamia in my ice cream. I think the stork delivered me to the wrong country. I should have landed somewhere on Oahu. :)

  17. This is the kind of information that really interests me. I am a poke newbie, but I have heard from people it can be had in Los Angeles. Sadly I was poorly advised by a friend the one and only time I suggested we try it. My friend said I would not like it. I should have held my ground. I can tell by this post that I would like it. GREG

  18. Mediterranean Turkish Cook: I know what you mean about wanting to have the time and money to travel more and eat to your heart’s content. Hawaii has a lot of great food, but it also lacks a lot, too. For example, there’s no Turkish restaurant here! I guess that means I need to cook Turkish food for myself, which in a way is a kind of traveling, right? I’d rather be in Istanbul if I’m going to eat Turkish cuisine, but if I can make it for myself in my kitchen then that’s the next best thing!

    Anna: If you’re jealous of me for where I live, I’m jealous right back atcha. I’d love to be living in NYC again. Just in terms of food alone NYC offers so much! For example, you’d be hard pressed to find blueberry lemonade with vodka in Hawaii. (I think so, anyway. I haven’t gone looking for it…) I hope that your seeing double was the result of that drink and not of recurring eye problems. But you said you’re much better now, so that’s good!

    Rowena: No limu in Italy? Ah, I guess that makes sense. It sucks, but it makes sense. And I agree, there’s really no substitute for it! If I ever move away from Hawaii, poke will definitely be a hard thing for me to give up. Still, I’m guessing you’ve got lots of amazing eats in Italy to keep you distracted from the lack of poke! I hope you get back to Hawaii soon so you can satisfy your poke cravings.

    Sweet Charity: Haha. If it makes you feel better, I’ve definitely had a pain au chocolate craving since the day you posted your recipe. I just typed in “Hawaiian poke” and “Calgary” and it looks like there’s some to be had at…Cactus Club-Barlow? According to they offer this: “fresh sashimi grade Ahi tuna cuddles with amenable prawns on a lush bed of avocado, macadamia nuts and tropical fruit salsa with crispy wonton chips on the side and a reserved drizzle of sesame ginger vinaigrette.” It may not be authentic, but hey, there’s some cuddling going on between the ahi tuna and amenable prawns, which sounds R-rated but rather tasty. Otherwise, the trim from the tuna you butcher might work perfectly. But the real question is whether or not you can get limu seaweed…

    Leela: Ah, macadamia nut ice cream…Arrghhlll…Yes, all that is definitely good eating! I sometimes think the stork delivered me to the wrong country, too. But aren’t you from Thailand? That seems like a pretty fantastic country for the stork to deliver you to!

    Greg: I just did a Google search for LA, too, but didn’t really come up with much. I’m sure there’s a Hawaiian market – somewhere in that vast city where you live – that sells fresh poke. If not, you can probably find the ingredients you need to make it on your own. But what do I know? I lived in Silver Lake for three months and never saw anything Hawaiian around LA. But I also wasn’t looking. Wait a sec. It looks like Marukai Market in Gardena sells some. I wonder why your friend thought you wouldn’t like it? I’m pretty hooked on the stuff myself. I hope you had a good time in Palm Springs, and yes, I’m not sure why I made that comment considering that I live in Hawaii! I guess I like the desert sometimes...

  19. Wow! How interesting. I have never heard of poke before, but with all the wonderful seasonings it sounds incredibly delicious. I hope I get to try it one day. Yum.

  20. You won't believe this, but I had poke this weekend at a Japanese sushi buffet! But I wonder now how authentic it was now that I know it is actually Hawaiian.

    PS. I didn't like it. :( I think it's an acquired taste.

  21. You can find it at (of all places) a traditional British Pub called Pickwicks on Ventura Blvd. in the valley! The owner spent WW2 stationed in Hawaii and brought the recipes and tradition back with him! It's been on my list, and will now move to the front of the line! GREG

  22. Hi Sapuche, I just gave you the friends award!! Why?? Check out my latest post: My 3rd award!!!

  23. What wonderful food! I love Poke!



  24. I figured it out now, and on a lighter note, if I said I wanted a 'Poke' my husband would laugh...but he said he has heard of it and would love to try it... (hope you delete other comments and do not post) email is so much simpler!

  25. A Girl Has to Eat: Yes, the seasonings are what make it interesting, not to mention the types of foods that can be used. Given the diversity of London’s food scene, hopefully you’ll be able to find it there. If not, I guess you have to come to Hawaii!

    Sugarlens: Haha! It may be an acquired taste, as you say. I wonder what kind you had and how it was prepared. Some poke is definitely better than others, and hopefully you’ll discover your own favorites over time. Don’t give up on it!

    Greg: Funny that a British Pub called Pickwicks offers poke! The owner sounds like an interesting guy. It’s easy to make as long as you can get the proper seaweed that accompanies it. Hope you try it soon!

    Sophie: Thank you! I just left a note on your blog, and congratulations on your own Friends Award!

    Rosa: Yes, I’ve really taken to poke since moving to Hawaii. I’m glad to hear you’re a fan of it, too!

    Chef E: Haha! I wish there were an editing feature for comments. I often want to go back and change things after I’ve posted them. I hope that you and your husband are able to give poke (pronounced poh-keh) a try soon, and best of luck with the culinary class you’re teaching. It sounds like fun! I’ll definitely be checking out your blog often to see what more I can learn from you!